Provide arts funding without undue pressures

There is palpable tension existing between arts practitioners and government arts-funding agencies on the issue of censorship and state financing ("The tough balancing act of arts funding", Nov 7; "Is NAC reverting to its past censorious role?", last Saturday; and "Freer rein needed for artistic excellence" by Mr Ng Joon Kiat, Thursday).

Censorship has had a long history since ancient times.

It has evolved and is still practised in many countries, in varied forms, to remove cultural contents considered offensive, immoral and harmful to society.

Censorship can occur in two forms in Singapore: an outright ban or a partial cut by the Government of a finished product, or using the instrument of financing to "encourage" arts groups to voluntarily conform to some vaguely spelt norms.

For the former, given the era of the Internet, censorship, including curtailing distribution, should be used sparingly and only in extreme circumstances, when security and the social fabric are being seriously threatened.

We should increasingly put more trust in the wisdom of the crowd.

There are people, like me, who like art that pushes boundaries. It is always invigorating to be challenged. Or shocked. However, we also recognise that there are people who dislike being pummelled when engaging with art.

On the other hand, Singaporeans should be more magnanimous and accommodating when engaging with critical and offensive art.

So how should cultural funding be distributed?

The National Arts Council (NAC) should adopt a long-term view and, as far as possible, adopt an arm's length approach in arts funding.

Funding should be provided in a way that insulates the arts from political, social or other pressures that might influence art groups to develop on terms other than their own artistic merits.

We do not want artists to be overly fearful of being offensive, as such restraint will seriously stifle creativity.

Culture has an indelible influence on our national psyche.

Nurturing a younger generation who impose self-restraint on everything they do, unless with official sanction, will impair our entrepreneurial instincts.

Competing in the next lap of economic development requires a populace with the capacity to think outside the box and to constantly push the boundaries of existing concepts and ideas.

The arts can provide that stimulus.

In apportioning arts funds, we can broadly categorise local arts based on their characteristics - accessible, abstract and complex, and boundary-pushing.

A right mix of the three would ensure the robust development and progress of our cultural sectors.

In the final analysis, despite the pain and the problems freedom of expression entails, it remains the most important element in the development of our arts and culture.

Edmund Lam (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'Provide arts funding without undue pressures'. Print Edition | Subscribe